Museums serve visitors, both on-site and off. Connecting with others is a grave responsibility, a relationship that can change people and organizations. Funders love engagement, like education and community engagement. Museums seek funding for programs that connect them to others, often raising millions for operating support. This work is essential, basically making the museums’ missions manifest. But, there are times when museums need to make good choices.
In my career, I have learned the hard way that funding and allocations are tinged with ethical considerations. For example, the museum professional is asking for support to staff a project that will help thousands of people for a certain term. As an organization, you are putting off making a decision. After the term, you will need to decide how Peter will be robbed to keep Paul working. Non-profits, like museums, can feel like a daily shell game. And, instead of playing for nickels, you are playing for people’s minds. Museum work is not frivolous–it is for the benefit of every person who connects with the institution.
These millions of people deserve to know that they are being treated in the most ethical manner. Museums often preference pragmatism to stark ethics. You make choices about allocations, pushing pennies to one project to support a team-member effectively robbing another audience. You hope to do it right, but sometimes the fog obscures the true north.
But, there is a simple goal, a cardinal direction of museum work. That our institutions should place collections, knowledge, and people in the forefront of their concerns. Everything we do needs to support these three goals equally. We as institutions have collections and knowledge down, but the visitors are often given short-shrift. But, people deserve some essential ethical considerations. Just as doctors take an to cause no harm, museum professionals have an ethical challenge to center their visitors:
Oath of Ethics in Museum W0rk
As a museum professional, I hereby promise that:
1.I will do no harm to the people we are hoping to serve.
2.I will not make assumptions about our patrons. We will ask them.
3.I will not just drop people when grant periods end.
4.I will treat all patrons like people.
5.I will not assume skin color defines interests, actions, or motivations.
6.I will not assume skin color connects people.
7.I will respect everyone, including ourselves. We will act in ways that feel respectful.
8.I will speak kindly, thoughtfully, and considerately. And, I will learn how to speak this way.
9.I will focus on people.